A Muruganatham, 47, of Coimbatore, invented a machine that makes 1,000 sanitary napkins daily. He also improvised a vending machine that can dispense napkins when coins are inserted. He spoke to Down To Earth's Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava on what must be done to make menstrual hygiene affordable
On the idea of a machine
My wife would use an old cloth during her periods. She told me if all the women in the family started buying napkins, they would have to cut down on milk. This was a revelation. I had to do something.
On the difficult years
I started with cotton. The most difficult was to find subjects for testing the napkins I made. I failed to convince my wife and sister. College girls thought I was psycho when I approached them with my products. I even tried a football bladder and put goat’s blood on it, with my napkin under it. I convinced medical students to use my napkins and would collect their used napkins for study. But I did not get results. When I got to know that wood fibre is used in napkins things became simpler.
On family support
When my mother saw my store full of used napkins, she packed and moved in with my sister.
On the innovation
The raw materials include pine wood pulp that absorbs the fluid, nonwoven fibre sheet for wrapping it, polyethylene film to make the base and the release paper to stick the napkin on the garments. The wood pulp is first converted into fine fibres in the de-fibration unit of the machine.
These fibres are then pressed and cut into rectangular blocks of desired size. This is done using a core-forming unit, operated by a foot pedal. These blocks are wrapped on three sides with a non-woven cotton sheet. The sealing unit is also powered by a foot pedal. The fourth stage involves disinfecting the napkins using ultraviolet rays in the sterilisation unit.
I turned down an offer from a private company to sell the patent of my machine. I want to use it to promote hygiene among rural and urban poor. I sell my machines to self-help groups.
MNCs v self-help groups
Cost is a big difference. MNCs sell each napkin for Rs 3-11; self-help groups sell it for Rs 1-2. Decentralised and micro-level production model makes their napkins cheap. We import the raw material—wood pulp from the US, non-woven fibre from Canada—in bulk and supply it to units in India. Manufacturing involves minimum energy consumption as the machines are semi automatic. The transporting cost is very little as the products are sold locally.
Two, our napkins are biodegradable. Companies use synthetic fibre sheet to cover the wood pulp. This enhances their quality along with the cost but the napkins become nondegradable.
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